I am a 49-year-old woman of German origin. I have been living in Australia since 1980 and have two teenage children, one of whom still lives with me. I have always been interested in various aspects of personal and societal growth and development. For three years I have regularly participated in co-counselling (or RC, Re-Evaluation Counselling), which I began after hearing about it from two friends. I did not at that time have the feeling that I was in need of any kind of counselling, but I have always been interested in psychology, which is also my field of study. So I contacted an RC teacher in Armidale and arranged a meeting. At the beginning it proved to be unspectacular. After answering a few immediate questions, she suggested we have a 'session' so I could see what it was like. She explained that we would just listen to each other for five minutes each, and she even set a timer for this. It seemed a bit unusual, but I went along with it. At the end she asked whether I wanted to meet her again the next week, and I agreed. In the weeks following I learnt the basic method of co-counselling (the sessions soon became longer) and some months later I participated in a 12-week (one evening per week) 'fundamentals course'.

Re-evaluation Counselling is a process whereby people of all ages and of all backgrounds can learn how to exchange effective help with each other in order to free themselves from the effects of past distress experiences. RC theory provides a model of what a human being can be like in the area of his/her interaction with other human beings and his/her environment. The theory assumes that everyone is born with tremendous intellectual potential, natural zest, and lovingness, but that these qualities have become blocked and obscured in adults as a result of accumulated distress experiences (eg fear, hurt, loss) which begin early in our lives.

Any young person would recover from such distress spontaneously by use of the natural process of emotional discharge (crying, trembling, raging, laughing, etc). However this natural process is usually interfered with by well-meaning people ("don't cry", "be a big boy", etc) who erroneously equate the emotional discharge (the healing of the hurt) with the hurt itself. When adequate emotional discharge can take place, the person is freed from the rigid pattern of behaviour and feeling left by the hurt. The basic loving, co-operative, intelligent and zestful nature is then free to operate. Such a person will tend to be more effective in looking out for his or her own interests and the interests of others, and will be more capable of acting successfully against injustice.

In recovering and using the natural discharge process, two people take turns counselling and being counselled. The one acting as the counsellor listens, draws the other out and permits, encourages and assists emotional discharge. The one acting as client talks and discharges and re-evaluates. With experience and increased confidence in each other, the process works better and better. An important feature of this arrangement is that an equal relationship is fostered from the beginning, as sessions are generally reciprocal. No money is being exchanged, as both parties are thought to profit from the arrangement.

The method has its roots in an interesting incident in the early 1950s, in which a working class man, Harvey Jackins, managed to assist an acquaintance to recover from a mental breakdown which nearly resulted in hospitalization. Harvey was so intrigued by this success that he decided to investigate further what happened, and whether it would work for other people too. Until 1970 the initiative remained limited to a small circle of people, but from then it took off rapidly, and has now spread into many different countries. Over the years, within the growing re-evaluation community, not only were better and more effective counselling techniques developed, but also the oppressions which our society imposes on everyone became clearer and provided a focus for 'wide world changing'.

Particular attention was (and is) given to the effects of racism and classism, and a lot of work has also been done on the oppression of both women and men, adultism, parents' oppression, mental health oppression, ageism, our economic system, the nuclear threat, and the environment. The dynamics of these oppressions have been thoroughly investigated, not with statistics and scientific inquiry, but primarily through the discharge and resulting clear thinking ('re-evaluation') of many men and women in sessions, addressing their particular angle of what soon were understood to be generalized patterns of oppression. These are now being counteracted by members of the international community wherever possible. In this context the sessions help to overcome feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness which so often prevent people from taking decisive action, and in many cases lead to denial and avoidance behaviour. Support groups help people to work more intensively on discharging and counteracting particular oppressions they experience, or have experienced.

I attribute the many beneficial effects of co-counselling on me to three different factors: the sessions, the literature and the workshops, especially the first workshop I attended. The sessions are conducted face to face or by telephone. They provide non-judgemental attention, closeness and the opportunity to release recent and old hurts. Knowing that I will soon be able to work in a session on any problems I might encounter also makes me much bolder in tackling 'risky' but worthwhile behaviours and projects. The literature consists of a number of books, a quarterly publication and occasional other publications for specific groups such as parents, young people, people of colour, etc. Reading the literature has a strong motivational effect on me. Hearing about other people's successes and projects in particular shows me what can be done. It motivates me to go to my personal limits in my endeavours, and gives me ideas for specific projects. For instance, one of the initiatives I started is a weekly study group for a small number of teenage girls, where studying is only part of the agenda. My personal aim is to provide a safe place for them to discuss, with each other and with a supportive adult, any issues they wish.

The first workshop I attended was a three-day 'teachers and leaders' meeting, with about 140 participants, mostly from Australia. It was an eye-opener to me. I was presented with a model of how I would like everyday interactions between all people to be in the whole of society. For me it was the frontier of socially developmental acting and thinking. The workshop was held in the Blue Mountains. On the first morning the leader asked for a volunteers to drive to Sydney airport to pick up some participants who were due to arrive that afternoon. When no one responded, she had us turn to our neighbour and 'have three minutes each about what's so hard to volunteer immediately'. After this, she gave an impassioned speech about how in our society there is so much emphases on individual advantage, a value that ultimately hurts us all. She pointed out that we would not have a slim chance to ever create a better society if we could not even respond to such a small challenge. She suggested that at least half the people in the room could have immediately raised their hands. She also pointed out why a number of excuses were not valid: if we had a car, but did not know the way, we could just request someone to come with us as guide. If we had a driver's licence but no car we could have asked to borrow one. Needless to say, she had a large number of volunteers to pick from after this short interlude. Generosity has since become a quality I have actively developed.

Another feature of this workshop was the constant access to attention. In other words, everyone made themselves available to others as much as possible. As I was walking around the grounds of the camp where the workshop was held I was not only aware that I could ask anyone I met there for 'five minutes of attention'. But I soon went a step further to offer the same to someone (a complete stranger) who seemed to be distressed - a valuable learning experience. This feature of looking out for each other was also reflected in the way people with special needs were taken care of: mattresses were made available for those who could not sit for extended periods of time, people with special food needs were not only catered for but were sought out to see whether everything was working. A roster for a mother with a baby was made to give her some space and time to attend talks and sessions. When it became known that a person with chemical sensitivity was attending, special soaps, shampoos and moisturizers were supplied for all, and strict instructions were given not to use perfumes or other scented products.

The most amazing thing for me was that, on a count I did later, I personally interacted with about half of the people, that is around seventy, in those three days. Furthermore, instead of feeling exhausted, as I usually would have after so much close contact with others, I felt invigorated. I think the most immediate benefit of co-counselling for me over three years shows itself in my relationship with my two teenage children. Realising the crucial role of attention in human interactions, I have been far more meticulous in giving attention when it was required (eg when one of them seemed more than usually withdrawn or irritable) or making sure that I gave my children a time when I would be fully available to them. Attention is most useful when it is just that - attention. No advice, no buying into drama, no barrage of questions. Just the quiet conviction that my teenager has all the resources he or she needs to resolve the issue at hand. I am still on a steep learning curve with regard to the quality of my attention, but whatever I am already able to do is tremendously useful.

Working on my own issues I have recognised that my own teenage years were at the root of some of my most persistent present-day problems. I suddenly realised how enormously helpful it would have been to have access to an adult ally, who had some understanding of the oppression young people are subjected to (no control over how they spend large amounts of their time, lots of expectations levelled at them by parents and peers, usually restricted financial means, etc). From this insight grew a determination to provide such support to as many teenagers as I can - hence the study group idea. A typical trait of mine which I recognised as a distress pattern was what I call the 'busy pattern'. Our whole society suffers from it, and it is actually being promoted as a virtue (oppressions work much better when people have no time to think about them, let alone do something about them). What often suffers is our health, our close relationships, and our need to reflect on our life and the meaning of it. Once I recognised it as a pattern, I made a commitment to choose wisely what activities I commit myself to, and never take on so much that I cannot be available any more (psychologically or physically) to my family and friends whom I value.

Another issue I have learnt about is the importance of closeness between us as human beings, and how the satisfaction of this need has been undermined by the way our society operates. The money-oriented western society is based on exploitation of certain groups of people by other people. This can only happen when people do not feel close to each other. One of the things we as individuals can do is to learn to get close to others - not only those that belong to our family or circle of friends, but also - and particularly - those that are quite different to us, people from different racial, religious or class backgrounds. If we manage to create such bonds with a wide spectrum of people, not only will we be enriched by the experience, but we will also counteract the unhealthy trends of our current society. In order to do so, we might have to take some risks to 'go after people'. This is a particular challenge for me, because one of the values that was very strongly impressed on me early was the need to give other people space, and not to move in too close on them. Yet if I want to create closeness I might have to face repeated rejection in the process of breaking through someone else's habitual distresses, and I am slowly learning to do so.